Esa-Pekka Salonen's devilishly difficult and cosmic Cello Concerto

Esa-Pekka Salonen's devilishly difficult and cosmic Cello Concerto
By Katharina Rabillon

It’s a devilishly difficult and cosmic Cello Concerto: the ink on the latest masterpiece by visionary Finish composer and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen has barely dried.

At the Helsinki Festival he took up the baton himself to conduct his new mesmerising work. The German-French cellist Nicolas Altstaedt offered a compelling interpretation at the Finnish National Opera.

“The cello is a fantastic instrument to write for,” says Salonen, “because of the range of expressions, the dynamics, the very sort of human quality of the sound. For many people when they hear the cello even one note makes them think that somebody is speaking to them.”

“I use metaphors from nature. I make these cloud-like formations, metaphorically you could say it’s like cumulus clouds traveling around the sky.”

Salonen also introduces an electronic element. By recording cello lines in real time and looping them, a layer is created from which the instrument enters into a dialogue with itself.

German cellist Nicolas Altstaedt said: “You hear the first bar, the way you play it and you think: ‘oh wow is that really me?’ Because the cello is looped you can play with that, be inspired by your own echo and so it becomes really vivid.”

Salonon continues: “When I hear my music played, I learn things about my own piece. I hear nuances and expressions and phrases and narratives that are something that I wasn’t thinking about but I’m delighted to hear them.”

In his latest masterpiece Salonen pushes the cellist to the outer limits of what seems possible…

“The greatest thing about him as a musicial being is that he trusts you and grants you a lot of freedom,” Altstaedt adds.

“It is a unique and privileged situation to be able to work with the composer in person on his master piece.”

Salonen stressed the importance of composing in his life: “Composing is very, very central in my inner-life. There is not one hour in my life when I wouldn’t think about something that relates to composing.”

“Even when I’m conducting. I’m always aware of: ‘ok that solution is great I have to remember that and that combination of instruments is fabulous, make a note.’ “

“So for me, this composing mind being awake all the time makes sure that I learn new things.”

The Helsinki Festival runs until September 3.